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Merlin doesn’t know why he puts up with Arthur. He genuinely has no idea. Okay, so he has trouble saying no to people, but there should be a limit. Really.

Arthur is an absolute twat. He has no respect for anyone, no interest in anyone but himself, and according to his highness the fucking world revolves around him (and if at any time it doesn’t it should probably rectify its behaviour post-haste, thank you kindly). He is an absolute nightmare to work with, the kind of singer that pianists tell each other horror stories about, laughing about it over a pint but it’s got a hysterical tone to it because they all know that sooner or later they are going to have to work with one of these people and they won’t be laughing then. Merlin’s stopped laughing now.

Arthur is horrible. He demands rehearsals when there is no time, won’t organise them when they’re needed, and then freaks out when Merlin doesn’t magically do exactly what he wants him to, do you not see that ritardando you absolute idiot how did you ever even get in this school, rolls his eyes isn’t it fucking obvious that I need to breathe there pay attention, won’t lift a finger unless it’s for his own benefit. Never compromises, not ever. Things are done the way he wants them, and that is fucking final. Merlin goes to the library finds the song he needs in the right key takes photocopies tapes them together books a practice room signs them up for this competition and that other one because Arthur is so busy, Merlin, I’m really sorry, opera rehearsals are literally taking up all my time but when Merlin walks past him carrying four heavy song collections and a Mount Everest of photocopies in addition to his own music that he needs for his lesson Arthur is there in the cafe bar with a cup of some herbal tea or other in his hand (who even fucking knows what singers live on, they’re all mental as far as Merlin is concerned), lounging about, chatting idle bullshit with his singer pals with his stupid 150 quid cashmere scarf looped around his neck.

Most days, Merlin could strangle him with that fucking scarf. Really.

Arthur shows up late and won’t apologise, brings music last minute or not at all, expects Merlin to be at his beck and call at all times like he is some fucking servant of his, come on we need to get a quick run-through before my lesson what do you mean you have a lecture a piano lesson a concert fuck that, changes his mind all the time and expects Merlin to magically figure things out on his own. I swear I texted you, I am doing the Schubert, don’t you ever pay attention? Of course there is never any fucking text. That would be just too easy.

As his friends have kindly informed him on more than one occasion, Merlin could complain about Arthur for a week without stopping. So why the hell does he put up with it? Okay, some of it is thanks to the accompaniment credit he needs to get his degree, but it’s not really about that, he could get that anywhere, easy. There’s always some singer out there needing a pianist, and he is a good one so it wouldn’t be a problem. But then it’s also a little about how heavenly Arthur sounds when he stops fucking talking and just sings. They work well together when they get there, it’s so easy to just be there and listen to each other, knowing exactly what happens next and it just fits, somehow. Arthur can be a proper wanker when it comes to practicality or human respect or anything, really, but when they actually stop fighting and start working it’s magic, and from the first note of Wandrers Nachtlied it’s like they can read each other’s minds. It’s so effortlessly easy, and despite the infuriating shite Arthur puts him through, Merlin can’t help but admit he’s never enjoyed playing with anyone half as much as he does with Arthur.

And then there’s that little detail, the one thing Merlin spends most of his waking hours actively repressing but that just somehow gets away from his control every time Arthur sings about love, every time he looks his way, be it sneering in disdain or wide-eyed, accidentally affectionate in his absent-mindedness, like he might actually enjoy working with Merlin too, more than anyone else, even though he is absolutely useless, Merlin, I swear to God. There’s the tiny little detail that Merlin is head over heels in love with Arthur and he absolutely does not know how to say no to him.

Okay, so maybe there are a few reasons why he puts up with Arthur. A few, but not nearly enough. Doesn’t make sense, of course, but then again, it wouldn’t. Nothing ever does, not in Merlin’s life, not since Arthur waltzed into it with his arrogant smirk and stupid hair and cashmere scarves and earnest eyes and everything about him that is so infuriatingly beautiful. Merlin tripped and fell face first into this mess, and now, when they’re alone together in a practice room and Arthur is shouting at him for playing too fucking fast at the vivace I need time to breathe for fuck’s sake or never doing anything right it’s not that hard sit down and look at it maybe, Merlin has no idea whether he wants to rip Arthur’s head off or fuck him to oblivion.

They don’t usually spend that much time together. Arthur has his own friends and Merlin isn’t really much of a sucker for company anyway. He’s a pianist so by default he rarely leaves the practice room, and when he does he prefers doing his own thing instead of getting involved in the music department’s drama and gossip. His circle of friends, such as it is, is completely different from Arthur’s, and it’s really not a surprise at all. They don’t have much in common.

Arthur likes lunch dates with friends at cute trendy restaurants that serve oysters and antipasti and aubergine and all sorts of fancy crap like that. He likes shopping and designer jeans and horrible clubs Merlin would never go to without being physically forced through the door, and his taste in films makes Merlin gag. Arthur actually likes Mozart, and he simply doesn’t get Messiaen, doesn’t give a shit about him or any of the other amazing brilliant ones that Merlin couldn’t live without.

Merlin lives on coffee, Red Bull, and sandwiches eaten on the run, he doesn’t really do lunch in its conventional form, and for tea he would rather have chips and gravy than French cuisine or modern Thai fusion cooking. He doesn’t much care what his food tastes like, never mind where he eats it or who with. He wears all his clothes until they fall apart because he can’t be bothered with buying new ones. On a night out, he usually follows the cheapest pint, and that definitely never leads to Arthur’s local. His taste in music and cinema is impeccable, thank you very much, and fucking Mozart or Fast and Furious is not it.

Arthur grew up in a country house, nay, a fucking palace with servants, probably. He has a horse of his own. He went to fucking Eton, for fuck’s sake. And then, when he sings, he sounds like an angel of the Lord and fucking hell if all that combined doesn’t make Merlin just the tiniest bit bitter. And jealous. And completely awestruck.

Merlin was brought up on an estate in the East End. He went to a fucking horrible state school and the only reason he ever learnt to play the piano was because his mother thought it was the most important thing there was once he told her it was what he wanted to do. The only reason he can afford this school is because he’s got a full scholarship since he’s apparently sort of not completely useless at this whole playing the piano thing. He definitely does not have a horse, and according to his mum, there are no servants in their house, either.

When Merlin talks, certain people scrunch up their noses at him, hold on to their handbags just a little bit tighter, all that. When Arthur talks, he sounds like the Queen.

They have absolutely nothing in common.

Except that they kind of do, and it bothers Merlin immensely that he knows this. It’s kind of there but he can’t really point it out. A wavelength. The way he knows when Arthur looks at him. The way they click when they work together. The way he can feel Arthur sort of lean towards him in the middle of a piece and he imagines wrapping his arms around him and holding him tight and burying his face in his neck and just being there.

It’s a problem.

***

“I’m doing Tamino,” Arthur says. He’s munching on his sandwich, sitting with Merlin for once as none of his singer friends are about and he can’t possibly lower himself to sitting on his own for lunch, not for a second. Merlin is sort of in the middle of something, but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t really mind, just puts his book away and hopes he isn’t blushing. “They put the roles up on the noticeboard yesterday.”

“Perfect role for you,” Merlin says, smiling because he can’t quite stop himself. Won’t say congratulations, not ever, he’s very careful about that.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. A whiny, entitled, naive brat. You won’t even have to act.”

“Hey,” Arthur says, with not much gusto. “I’ll have you know he is very brave and righteous.”

“But more than anything, he is whiny and entitled. And he falls in love with a picture, the fucking loser.”

“Whatever.” Arthur throws his sandwich wrapper at Merlin who dodges gracefully - he’s done this before - and laughs. Arthur sticks his tongue out like a five-year-old. “Fancy learning the Magic Flute then, magic fingers Merlin? I couldn’t possibly do this without you.”

“Of course you couldn’t.” Especially knowing full well that Merlin has a very special relationship with Mozart - in that he wants to burn everything he’s ever written. “Get me the music and I’ll think about it.”

“Get it yourself, they have it in the library.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Don’t even,” Arthur says with a smile and blinks at Merlin in what must be deliberate seduction because fuck. “You know you will. You’d do anything for me.”

And he would, and how fucking sad is that.

He does learn the goddamn Magic Flute, because of course he does. He ends up accompanying the singers’ rehearsals for the whole production, and how that happened he has no idea (except that maybe Arthur asked nicely, pulled his puppy face and said he absolutely needs Merlin to be there, and Merlin has no defences against Arthur’s fucking puppy face, the bastard). And okay, he can admit that there are a few good bits, like that fantastic scene with the guards that’s almost like Bach, but Arthur has nothing to do with that so when Arthur grabs his arm and drags him to a practice room because there’s this and that that he needs to quickly run through, really, only five minutes, all Merlin gets to blast through is Tamino’s whiny love songs and gullible adventures in the magical land of love, and if it wasn’t for Arthur he’d probably be bored to tears half the time.

But Arthur is there. Right there, in the tiny room they’re in, pacing around with his tattered score in hand, looking straight at Merlin with a sort of lost look on his face as he sings, soll dies Empfindung Liebe sein? and Merlin forgets he’s playing Mozart and blinks and looks back down and pushes away the stutter in his heart, forces it to hide in the back of his mind, could this feeling be love, and the moment passes as Arthur stops and groans and starts ranting about how Merlin obviously cannot slow down at that bit, how long have we been working together, Merlin, really, and Merlin can’t even be bothered to try and snap back at him. He’s not sure he could talk now, anyway. He feels a bit heartsick. A boy like that, singing about love, looking at him like it means something.

And he wants so badly it actually hurts.

He goes out that night with Freya and Leon, gets kind of drunk and goes home with the first bloke that looks his way. The next morning is excruciating as he completes his walk of shame with a splitting headache and a bad shag he barely remembers to make matters so much worse, but at least he wasn’t getting his hopes up for a bit because he was too busy being pathetic. He isn’t getting his hopes up now. He has no intention of doing anything but dying away quietly. And that’s good, that’s what he wanted.

As he starts feeling better, he decides he needs to stop being such a willy and get his life under control. He tells himself he is a strong confident individual who doesn’t need a man, and he walks back to uni on Monday morning with his head held high.

The first thing Merlin experiences after seeing Arthur with his hair tousled, his cardigan with the sleeves rolled up, his jeans deliciously embracing his arse, that stupid scarf of his looped around his neck his smile lighting up the world around him, is his carefully constructed resolve crumbling away like a Dorito with too much salsa on it. He runs to hide in the disabled toilet until his hammering heart calms down a bit, and later when he plays Chopin with a desperate edge to it, throat burning with tears he refuses to let out, he wonders when he let it get this bad. He is very ready to be done with all this and start a new chapter in his life.

***

It starts on that very same Monday. The next chapter. Except that it’s not what he expects, like, at all.

At the rehearsal Arthur acts differently somehow. He even sounds a bit off, his voice stuck and tight, constantly going sharp like Arthur never would, not usually. It’s not that obvious at first but then Merlin screws something up and instead of commenting on it like he normally would Arthur just scowls to himself, eyeing the floor like it’s the enemy, his face one big shadow. Merlin bites his lip and wonders if he’s been too obvious in his little crisis massive crisis bigger than life, if Arthur knows now and wants to punish him for it.

He is, anyway.

Arthur doesn’t talk to him after, just looks at his feet his jaw sharp his brows drawn tight, walks away stiff and distant and Merlin wants to cry.

After that, it first seems like it maybe goes back to normal but then it isn’t normal at all anymore. Arthur gets more and more irritable as he goes. Not in his usual obnoxious way either, more like he just can’t bear being with people, can’t bear the way the world is, and he reacts the only way he knows how, by taking it out on Merlin. Without really agreeing to it, Merlin has stopped attempting to repress his emotions, and he is tired and raw with it, and it’s genuinely not a good time at all for Arthur to start acting like an actual prick who would actually prefer if Merlin just offed himself while he’s at it because that would be better for everyone surely, and all that. Arthur has gone from a bit prickly and infuriatingly self-entitled to actually cruel, like he genuinely wants nothing more than to hurt Merlin.

He doesn’t even look at Merlin anymore, not even when he speaks to him. Not like he did before, smiling a bit amused sort of like he forgot he was supposed to be doing something else. Like he forgot he was ever supposed to care about anything else, or anyone. Merlin finds he misses it like he would his own heartbeat.

They keep working together but the air in any room they share is thick and toxic, hard to breathe.

***

The Magic Flute opening night is only a few days away and as far as rehearsals go they’re mostly with the orchestra at this point so Merlin is pretty much off the hook - except for Arthur. Nervous Arthur, twitchy Arthur, painfully insecure but would never ever show it Arthur (except that Merlin knows, he always does), Arthur fucking “everything is your fault Merlin” Pendragon.

They’re rehearsing, same thing for the forty-seventh time, Merlin is sweating his face off and his fingers are slipping on the keyboard and they can’t even breathe in the tiny practice room anymore, but Arthur is not happy. His barely contained explosive energy has a frozen edge to it and it makes Merlin nervous, the way Arthur gets so fierce and he can’t decide whether he’s scared or turned on, and his fingers stumble and his concentration slips and his brain activity grinds to a halt and as a result Arthur stops singing with a groan, again, and kicks the music stand to the floor with a sickening bang and all his music scatters to the floor. His fucking Bärenreiter edition of Magic Flute. He kicks that, too, for good measure.

Merlin bites his lip and wipes his sweaty hands on his jeans, stares at the keyboard like it has the ability to save him from the world, which it obviously doesn’t.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Arthur hisses, eyes on the ceiling, like he isn’t even talking to Merlin except he is.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Merlin snaps.

Arthur punches the wall. There’s a crack from somewhere, hand, wall, both, and Merlin flinches, but it’s like Arthur doesn’t even notice.

“Shut the fuck up. It’s like you’ve never seen that bloody instrument before in your life. It’s the only thing you’re good for so get it together, you useless piece of shit.”

And it burns and it’s freezing cold both at once, and Merlin blinks back tears and goes, “oh shut it, you cunt, it’s ‘cause of your ugly talentless mug in my breathing space that I can’t even fucking concentrate,” and then sort of gasps and sobs at once when his brain catches up with his mouth.

Arthur stops mid-breath, eyes wide. Fucking beautiful bastard.

“You what?”

“You put me off,” Merlin says, shaky, but his voice sounds more like what are you like and I’m a bit mad for you and I can’t bear it, and the fight that could have been so ugly feels a bit distant now, like it’s drained out of them, replaced by more important things.

“I don’t though, do I?”

Merlin refuses to look at him anymore. Refuses to feel anything regarding that slow, wondering note in Arthur’s voice that he thinks he can hear, refuses to answer.

“Fuck, Merlin,” Arthur says, his voice hoarse, “fuck you, I thought -”

And then he’s all swift movements and grappling hands and a tight grip on Merlin’s shirtsleeve, and he pushes him against the piano with a bang of dissonant keys, and then Merlin’s hands are in Arthur’s hair and they are kissing like they wanna kill, like they are going to die, like all of it. And Merlin faintly realises he never said yeah okay, he never said he wanted any of this, but then again he doesn’t frankly give a fuck and of course Arthur knew and the desperation of it is clawing him raw from the inside so he bites Arthur’s lip and swallows his groans and pushes him against the wall off the Steinway that doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment no matter how urgent their need, Merlin is only horny and desperate not a completely different person from only minutes before, thank you very much. What if the moisture got in the piano, I mean, just think about it.

Anyway.

So yes he pushes Arthur against the wall grinds their hips together like he doesn’t even care, panting against his skin, fingers gripping him tight, and says, “fuck you Pendragon” and just fucking goes for it because fuck everything. This is happening and it might never happen again so Merlin will take what is thrown at him, take it and embrace it and hold it tight not letting go, and it’s his hand down Arthur’s trousers, Arthur’s teeth scraping at his neck, gasps, groans, bruised lips messed up hair and shaky shaky hands that will not find another correct key today.

Merlin comes in his pants like a teenager, gasping, rutting against Arthur’s thigh, as he frantically sloppily strokes Arthur over the edge. He wipes his hand on his t-shirt, all blown circuits and wide-eyed wonder, and Arthur, shaky slack-jawed with tousled hair, stares at him for a moment too long for it to pass as nothing at all before storming out, and Merlin is left on his own in the practice room, suddenly so small and smelling like awkward preteen wank sessions but also fucking sex heaven. And he thinks, what if I got it wrong. What if.

He sits at the piano, stares at the keys for a long time, and then slowly strokes them, like it looks a bit different now, like he’s touching it with new hands.

When he starts playing it’s nothing at first, just some random overly emotional improvisation that is too personal and too scattered to be really even a little bit good, and then it is that fucking aria from Magic Flute, the stupid prince singing about that one picture, that girl he fell in love with so easily and how that made him so happy, and for a moment Merlin both understands him a little and doesn’t understand anything at all. About anything. How they just love each other just like that, no problem. It’s so unfair.

***

Arthur doesn’t talk to him for the next few days. Merlin sees him talking to Freya, so maybe she’s playing for him now because he can’t handle Merlin’s existence, can’t be a grown-up about it and pretend everything is okay but never talk about it. He doesn’t hang around to find out for sure. He practises like a mad pony, drinks coffee with his right hand as he practises the left, stays in overnight more than once. The Magic Flute comes and goes and he decidedly does not go to see it. They invite him to the wrap party. You have to come Merlin you absolutely have to you worked so hard you were irreplaceable we couldn’t have done it without you says Gwen, the singer who did the role of Pamina, the girl Tamino spent the entire opera mooning over, and she’s so sweet and genuine about it that Merlin smiles sideways and shrugs and says yeah, alright. Maybe it’s time to stop acting like a child, face his fears and his past mistakes. And maybe a tiny part of Merlin thinks about the possibility of being at a party with Arthur, both of them getting drunk, and maybe encouraged by the liquid light of the world or something they might get friendly over the course of the evening, really friendly like.

So he goes, gets braver and braver each step, and when he rings Gwen’s doorbell with vodka and coke in a Tesco plastic bag he’s already smiling. It’s okay, he can do it, it’s fine, he’ll just get drunk and be happy and Arthur can’t ruin his night. He has every right to be here.

Arthur answers the door. Of course he does. Merlin swallows his happy mood in his nervousness and turns to stare at his shoes just so he wouldn’t accidentally look at Arthur too long, in the wrong way, at all, really, lest he give something away.

“Merlin.” It doesn’t sound like anything, the way he says it, and it makes Merlin inexplicably sad.

“Um, hi.”

He shuffles his feet and Arthur steps back, lets him pass. Merlin walks in, squeezes past Arthur, too close, the corridor is narrow, his hand brushes against Arthur’s thigh and it feels like fire. Arthur says nothing, does nothing. Just lets him in and nods towards the kitchen, and Merlin can’t quite manage a smile.

He mixes his drink a lot stronger than he usually would and downs it fast, cringes against the burn. He refuses to go looking for Arthur again until he’s had a few more, hanging out in the kitchen and half-heartedly chatting with anyone who passes through. Nobody stays. He’s not fun to be around tonight.

Drinks later he stumbles a bit and grabs the doorframe to steady himself, he’s not really all that drunk, just surprised by the movement, the change of pace, but drunk enough to not really care anymore, and there is Arthur, Arthur’s hand on his waist, nobody is paying attention anymore, and they sneak out and share a taxi to Arthur’s house that Arthur pays for and, as soon as they get through the front door, without saying a word, get to business. They rip off each other’s clothes between heated kisses on their way to the living room, to Arthur’s bedroom, to the condoms and the lube and the blessed spread of bed they have for their own, and after a few complications (such as forgetting to take off one’s shoes before attempting to take off one’s jeans, or a pair of shaky hands that don’t quite manage to open a condom wrapper in their usual style) they finally end up with Merlin pushing Arthur into the mattress, slamming into his arse like everything depends on it, almost crying about it because he didn’t even realise how much he wanted this until now and it makes things all kinds of worse.

Again he thinks, what if I can’t have this again? What if this is it?

It’s not the best sex either of them has ever had, they’re too drunk for that and want each other a bit too much, but it’s a bit glorious nevertheless, and Merlin comes out of it gasping, staring at the ceiling with eyes full of wonder, listening to Arthur’s ragged breathing next to him and thinking about how weird it is that he can love this much.

He falls asleep there, next to Arthur, covered in come and sweat and smelling of booze, so romantic. He wakes up the same way except stickier, feeling a bit faint, and with a killer headache. It takes him a moment to realise where he is or who with, and after that he has no idea what he should be feeling right now. He stays there, staring at the ceiling, his brain both buzzing like mad and completely empty of everything ever.

He slept with Arthur, then. Huh. Great job, Merlin.

He’s sort of like paralysed. He thinks about getting up and getting his clothes and running away like the gigantic loser he is, but for some reason he can’t manage it. Maybe he doesn’t want to, not anymore, they’ve done this thing (again) and something will happen because of it, and maybe he’d rather know now than later, because eventually he will know and until then he won’t be able to breathe normally. He can’t breathe normally now.

Twenty minutes later, Arthur groans and turns and bumps his forehead against Merlin’s shoulder and then, slowly, blinks his eyes open.

“Morning,” Arthur says, his voice rough. He sounds a bit confused. He opens his mouth as though to say something more, but then changes his mind or can’t think of anything because he closes it again and blinks like he doesn’t quite know what’s happening.

“Morning,” Merlin says. He can’t think of anything else to say, either.

The silence that follows is painfully awkward but at least they are in it together. Merlin won’t look at Arthur, doesn’t dare, is too scared of what he might see on his face, things like this was a mistake and I don’t ever want to see you again that might break him because he got so close, and in the end never really close enough.

“We were really drunk,” Arthur says quietly, and Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, bites his lip against the burn behind his eyelids, the surprisingly intense ache that blooms in his chest. He knows he should probably say something but he can’t, if he tried he would cry. Just as well, he supposes. If Arthur is going to rip off the plaster might as well let him do it right away. It’s not going to get any easier. He exhales a shaky breath.

“I mean,” Arthur finally says when it’s become apparent that Merlin won’t be answering him. “We were drunk. But I don’t regret it.”

“Yeah?” Merlin says, quiet, not really wanting to get his hopes up yet. Just in case.

“Yeah. It was good. And…” Arthur bites off the rest of that, or trails off, doesn’t know what to say, won’t say it yet. “Yeah.”

“I don’t regret it either,” Merlin says. “I mean. I don’t want to regret it, at least.”

Arthur huffs a sort of laugh, and Merlin blinks his eyes open, turns to look at him. He’s smiling, kind of a bit apprehensive but smiling nonetheless, like he’s really okay with this but he’s not quite sure if that is okay, and suddenly Merlin is a lot less scared and a lot more just wants to hold Arthur forever and whisper in his hair, I’ll never leave you, love, I promise.

He doesn’t, not yet. Not quite yet. But he smiles, and can’t help but swipe Arthur’s fringe of his forehead, slowly stroke his cheekbone with one fingertip. Can’t help but think it, anyway.

They can’t stay in bed forever. They take a shower together and it’s lovely, and Arthur cooks Merlin breakfast. It’s surprisingly decent. Merlin smiles at Arthur over his cup of coffee and, with his mouth full of scrambled eggs, asks him if his private chef taught him how to cook before left for university. Arthur swats him in the head with a magazine and calls him an idiot but can’t quite stop smiling.

With the hearty breakfast under his belt Merlin’s hangover has subsided somewhat but he still feels a bit shaky. It might be the alcohol, or it might be the man, the smell on the too-big t-shirt he has on that doesn't belong to him and isn’t exactly clean but a lot cleaner than the one he walked in wearing. The way Arthur’s hair looks without all that product in, shining in the sunlight that floods in through the big windows in his living room.

Merlin tries to leave all day but ends up spending another night. Their second time is a lot better than the first; both of them sober, full of intent. The third time is even better, but it’s the way Arthur holds him close in the aftermath, pushes his forehead against his neck and lets out a stuttering sigh, the way their bodies fit together, that’s what takes Merlin’s breath away and almost makes him cry.

Merlin has never liked sharing his bed. He gets hot and moves around a lot in his sleep. With Arthur, it’s completely different. They have just slipped into this state of perfection, of sharp edges that do not chafe, like pieces of a puzzle where the parts where they are so different are the reason why they fit together so tightly, so easily. Merlin thinks this, doesn’t say it out loud, but he knows he will, sooner or later. They are too good like this, why would they ever be something else.

They talk for hours about all kinds of things, kind of meaningless things as well as the most important. Arthur’s voice shakes when he answers Merlin’s whispered questions fueled by his own insecurity. I was so scared you wouldn’t want me back, I was so scared I would lose everything, I was horrible to you and I’m sorry but I was so scared. Merlin feels Arthur’s breath hot against his neck. Arthur’s arms tighten around Merlin when he talks about painful things. His father. Will. Arthur mentions his mother for the first time that Merlin’s ever heard.

They talk until they fall asleep, and when they wake up they talk some more. Arthur makes Merlin breakfast again, and Merlin doesn’t want to leave but he has to because even though he exists in a bubble of love the rest of the world doesn’t and so he has things to do.

“Is this a thing that we have?” Arthur asks Merlin when he’s putting on his coat.

“If you want it to be,” Merlin says. He looks at his shoes and then looks at Arthur and smiles at the smile on his face.

“Right then,” Arthur says, clearly going for his casual haughty tone, but it doesn’t quite work. He is a bit too full of glee for that and if he were a puppy he’d be wagging his tail so hard it would be in danger of falling off. Merlin snorts at the mental image of Arthur as a tiny golden retriever, something he finds surprisingly not difficult at all to imagine.

“Okay,” Merlin says. “I reckon it’s a thing that we have, then.”

Arthur kisses him and hugs him like nobody has ever hugged him before, and Merlin finds it easy to relax into it and hug him back tight. He breathes into the curve of Arthur’s neck, holds onto the back of his shirt like he’s kind of scared Arthur might fall away from him if he lets go, and thinks about how strange this is. And how this will change everything, and how he doesn’t know how to be around this, around Arthur in this new way where they’ve stopped lying and pretending they don’t care, he doesn’t know how to do any of it.

He doesn’t even get the chance to properly panic before Arthur pulls him closer, holds him tighter, just so, like he knows.

“God, this is just brilliant,” he whispers into Merlin’s hair. “The whole gay situation was bad enough, and now I’m dating a chav. What is dad going to say?”

Merlin snorts, closes his eyes with a sigh, kisses Arthur’s neck, I know what you’re saying, and thinks, maybe it won’t be that different from before. Maybe it doesn’t need to be.

On his way home Merlin smiles like a lunatic and hums along to his sappy playlist of desperate love. People look at him weird and nobody sits down next to him on the bus but he doesn’t care. It’s cold and rainy and grey outside but to him, London has never looked more beautiful.